Humpback whales get the bulk of the attention among whale watching enthusiasts in Hawaii, and rightly so.

But not all whales in Hawaiian waters are humpbacks.

Many other whale species frequent the waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands, and odontocetas — known as toothed whales — have been spotted year-round off the coasts of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai.

Odontocetas spotted in Hawaii include:

  • false killer whales
  • melon-headed whales
  • pygmy killer whales
  • short-finned pilot whales

While smaller than humpback whales, odontocetas are typically seen in larger pods that can include hundreds of animals. Watching them interact and swim together is an indelible experience.

During a three-month period, researchers from Pacific Whale Foundation’s Wild Whale and Dolphin Project documented more than 62 sightings of odontocetes, including groups of spinner, spotted, bottlenose and rough-toothed dolphins as well as short-finned pilot whales, melon-headed whales and orcas.

The sightings occurred in a study area between Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Kahoolawe. Some of the groups were quite large, including a group of 400 melon-headed whales.

Pilot Whales are Most Frequently Seen

The most frequently seen of Maui’s year-round whale residents are short-finned pilot whales, which average 12 to 16 feet long and weigh 1.5 to 2.5 tons. They are easily recognized by their rather large and bulbous heads and their strongly curved, broad-based dorsal fins. They’re primarily black or dark gray and have been seen in groups averaging 24 animals.

How to Spot a False Killer Whale

False killer whales average a sturdy 13 to 16 feet long at adulthood, weighing a ton or more. They are all black except for a light gray area on their bellies. Their heads are small and slender, and their mouth openings are large. Despite their name, they bear very little resemblance to the killer (orca) whale.

Melon-headed Whales are Smaller Than Pilots and False Killer Whales

Melon-headed whales are 7.5 feet long on average, weighing about 350 pounds. They are black on their backs and sides, with a small gray patch on the underside in the throat area. The mouth line is short and steeply angled.

Orcas are Occassionally Sighted

Occasionally, orca whales have been sighted off the coast of Lanai. The orcas may be part of a population that has been dubbed rogue killer whales, known for their habits of traveling in small groups and feeding opportunistically on nontraditional prey species. Male killer whales average 28 feet in length; females are 23 feet long. The average weight is eight tons for males and four tons for females.